A couple of years ago Joe, Joey, Katherine, and I took a little trip to Sicily. We stayed with my mom’s sister, Zia Antonia, and our cousins Giovanna and Maria, with a whirl of cousins and cousins’ cousins zipping around us. We ate. A lot. As Katherine once put it, “Oh, we ate. At gunpoint.” That’s to say, they piled food on our plates—much more than on their own—and wouldn’t hear a word of protest from any of us. This was all in a spirit of love and merriment, of course, and we appreciated every second.
It was a grand time. I won’t go into just how grand because I don’t mean for this to be a trip recap. I only want to talk about one thing: cannoli.
Everything we ate, from the fresh sheep’s milk ricotta to the wine and olive oil, was made from scratch. It was an ongoing theme at every meal. Then, one day after dinner, my aunt walked in with a tray of cannoli. Weird, I thought. It’s the first time they went out and bought something ready-made. Only, they hadn’t. I learned quickly that my aunt had spent the afternoon rolling and frying cannoli shells and making the filling out of sheep’s milk ricotta that her daughter-in-law brought from her dad’s farm. It was a humbling momement. Until then, I actually thought I was an accomplished home cook. Hah! I realized I had so much to learn. So much dough to tend. So many hours to still pay my dues.
And so, I’m working on it.
I finally got the nerve to tackle cannoli. And my God—it was amazing! There’s something truly magical about tossing these babies into the fryer and seeing them transform into cannoli shells. Those crispy golden brown shells you’ve only ever seen behind the bakery’s glass case. You. Can. Make. Them.
Before I go any further, please listen: If you decide to make these, do not try to “make them healthier” by baking the shells. I’m saying this because I tried it, and it’s a flop. The wonder of a cannoli is lost without the fried shell. Please, save yourself the trouble and trust me. This is one of those things you just have to do all the way. It’s worth it.
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup cake flour
pinch of salt
1/4 cup white sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 cup shortening
2 large eggs
1/2 cup sweet Marsala wine
4 tablespoons water
1 egg white
vegetable oil for frying
30 ounces whole milk ricotta cheese
3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar, plus more for dusting
1/4 teaspoon orange zest
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
dark chocolate bar, for shaving
Making the shells:
In a large bowl, whisk together flour, salt, sugar, and cinnamon. Blend in the shortening with a fork, breaking it down into pea-size pieces. Add the eggs, Marsala, and 2 tablespoons of water.
Continue mixing with a fork until the mixture forms into a loose dough. Switch to hand kneading (either right in the bowl, or turn onto a floured surface). Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of water in installments as needed, and knead for 5 to 10 minutes, until all the dry ingredients are incorporated into a firm dough. Form into a ball and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least one hour, or overnight (recommended if you’re baking on a weeknight—it’s a lot for one night).
Working with small, fist-size pieces, roll the dough as thin as possible—about 1/8 inch—over a lightly floured surface.
Use a large biscuit cutter or other round form to cut out 5- to 6-inch circles. I used the rim of a Ziploc container. It worked pretty well!
Dust each circle with flour and roll around metal cannoli tubes, sealing the edges with a brush of egg white.
I highly recommend owning a few packages of metal cannoli tubes because:If you only have the 4 tubes that come in a pack, you’ll be running around like a harried lunatic trying to roll the next batch. In that time, your oil will overheat if you’re not using a deep fryer with a controlled temerature gauge (like me, on all counts).
You’ll save at least an hour, and much stress, if you’re not rolling dough circles under the ticking clock of a hot oil pot.
So roll all your shells before you begin frying if you can.
Heat the oil to 375 degrees F, either in a deep fryer or heavy pan. Fry the shells on the tubes four at a time, or as many will fit comfortably in your fryer without overcrowding.
Fry for 2 to 3 minutes, turning with metal tongs after about 1 minute, until golden on all sides.
Turn onto a dish or cooling rack lined with paper towels.
This can still be done with only one package of tubes. Just have all your circles floured and ready for rolling, and work fast! Carefully slide the fried shells off their tubes after cooling for 3 to 4 minutes. Use a dish towel or paper towels to grip the edge of the hot tube (they cool faster than you’d expect) and a fork to push the shell off. Give the shell a little turn if it doesn’t slide off easily. And be careful! They’re still very hot.
The whole project is best done with a deep fryer since, again, your oil will likely overheat on a stovetop.
Store cooled shells in an airtight container until ready to serve.
Making the filling:
Mix together the ricotta, confectioners’ sugar, orange zest, and cinnamon. Using a pastry bag with a large tip, pipe filling into each shell, starting in the center and working your way out on one side, then doing the same on the other side. Garnish with shaved dark chocolate, mini chocolate chips, or chopped candied fruit. Try to fill the shells immediately before serving, or about an hour before.